“Prayer” at the Art Institute of Chicago

November 2, 2018
“Prayer” at the Art Institute of Chicago

Prayers and songs based on Baha’i texts were among those from dozens of faith traditions incorporated into a  work of art by James Webb on exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago through the end of 2018.

Seven Baha’is were recorded reading and singing in the Auditorium of the Baha’i House of Worship in September for the project. These 17 selections became part of “Prayer,” an ongoing artwork that Webb has remade around the world since its first presentation in his home city of Cape Town, South Africa, in 2000. The Chicago version is the 10th and largest to date, as well as the first in North America.

Recorded prayers play simultaneously in the gallery installation. Photo courtesy of the Art Institue of Chicago

The work consists of unsynchronized layered vocal recordings of human voices in prayer from individuals who belong to dozens of faiths and spiritual groups in Chicagoland, according to information from the Art Institute. The prayers and chants included in the Baha’i selections were in a variety of languages, including Persian and Arabic.

Listeners are invited to remove their shoes and walk the length of the carpet, composing their own arrangement of voices as they go, or to kneel or otherwise lower themselves next to a speaker to listen more closely to particular prayers. The spare though colorful installation has the austerity of a work of minimal art and the enveloping richness of a choral concert.

Larry McGhee, a Baha’i who attended the opening of the exhibition, was one of several hundred people who listened to the artist’s presentation and then viewed the gallery.

“I believe that they’re trying to share the different ways prayers can be conveyed so people can have an appreciation for how other people practice,” McGhee says. He goes on to articulate one of the Baha’i views of prayer, that it need not be confined to a particular place. “It is a worthwhile venture,” says McGhee, “because wherever the mention of God is being made and His praise glorified is a blessed spot.”

All of the Baha’i selections were of prayers revealed by one of the Central Figures of the Baha’i Faith — the Bab, Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Such prayers are considered by Baha’is to be the Word of God and spiritually powerful.

A visitor to “Prayer” leans in close to listen. Photo courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

The artist, an experimental musician and visual artist with a degree in comparative religion, initiated “Prayer” in Cape Town five years after his country ended its practice of apartheid. The word apartheid means segregation; Webb has created a work that strives to bring people together. His goal in some ways echoes the mission of the Baha’i House of Worship as a place that brings together people of different faith backgrounds in common worship.

“Prayers articulate a basic wish for communion and often serve to solidify a community of faith in a place of worship,” the artist writes. By deliberately gathering prayers from a variety of neighborhoods and spiritual practices and naming each of the participants and congregations, Webb aims to join together inhabitants of his host city.

The process for creating “Prayer” is collaborative and rooted in the place where it is installed. All participation by faith members is voluntary, and each community receives a copy of the recording for their own use. Listen to the recordings made at the Baha’i House of Worship: https://bit.ly/2qsv2UZ

–Installation details, links and photos courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

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